A while back I wrote that I disagreed with a professor's argument. I didn't make all my points as clearly as I could. However a friend was kind enough to suggest that the professor's point was doomed from the beginning because he had picked a topic that was in my "wheelhouse."
I hadn't heard the phrase "in your wheelhouse" before that. The context and our shared knowledge made it clear that my friend meant that the topic was a favourite or a familiar one -- and I was therefore adept at arguing my point.
I looked in several dictionaries to find out more about this word/phrase.
an enclosed compartment from which a vessel can be navigated [syn: pilothouse]
Websters New World:
PILOTHOUSE [also tags the entry as an Americanism.]
Webster's Deluxe Unabridged:
a shelter built over the steering wheel of a ship; a pilothouse.
Funk and Wagnall's:
1 A small house on the deck of a vessel in which the steering wheel is located; a pilothouse. 2 A paddle box.
Thank goodness the OED doesn't worry about saving space and giving only the essentials. So the entry there is predictably more informative than the rest.
1. A structure enclosing a large wheel, e.g. a water-wheel; spec. a house or superstructure containing the steering-wheel, a pilot-house; also, the paddle-box of a steam-boat..
2. a. A building in which cart-wheels are stored.
b. = ROUND-HOUSE
3. Archæol. A circular stone dwelling of the late Iron Age of a type widespread in northern and western Scotland, having partition walls radiating from the centre.
The various definitions of pilothouse are not so various. All indicate a room housing the wheel used to steer a ship or boat.
And none of these gives me a good answer regarding my friend's use of the term. So I search for wheelhouse on Google™ and the first hit is an entry at the The Phrase Finder. Telling me that this is used in baseball to indicate that area (usually in the strike zone) that makes a pitch easy to hit. The page includes a citation from James Carville with Jeff Nussbaum's Had Enough: A Handbook for Fighting Back: "[W]e're going to take it into this administration's supposed wheelhouse."
It also provides an address to a baseball jargon page but that link has changed and is now a useless matrix of circular advertising.
So we go elsewhere. Over to the Urban Dictionary where we get an entry for wheelhouse with several definitions. The first is provided by Reimer Cunningham who defines the word as an "area of expertise, a particular skill". An illustrative quote is included: as an alcoholic, a beer drinking contest is right in my wheelhouse. This definition has received 62 positive votes and 3 negative.
The second definition gives a little more information claiming the term refers to that area within a batter's range to makes good contact easiest. This definition also provides two examples of use. There is an ambiguous attribution on each use but it's not clear if these are actual quotes. This definition has received 49 positive votes and 2 negative.
The Wiktionary entry for wheelhouse is simple -- but it gives 3 definitions:
1. (nautical) An enclosed compartment, on the deck of a vessel such as a fishing boat, from which it may be navigated; on a larger vessel it is the bridge or pilothouse
2. (nautical) The enclosed structure around side paddlewheels on a steamboat.
3. (baseball) A batter's power zone
The reach of wheelhouse has extended from its use in sports to the more general sense of skill. Much like to hit it out of the park can mean to have any success or to perform an impressive display of ability.
But I'm still curious about the move from the nautical into the baseball.
A third definition in the Urban Dictionary makes the following guess:
Anything that can be acted on with confident success.
I'm guessing it originates from the fact that a wheelhouse is the room on the bridge of a ship where you steer from, providing you with clear view & control to steer the situation.
I'll disagree. It makes sense to look past the pilothouse meaning. Consider instead the paddlewheel enclosure extending into the baseball sense. As a wheel swings easily on a point or axle any object that enters that box is in danger of being smacked silly. Imagine the damage done to any object that gets caught in that wheelhouse. It only had to happen a few times before the wheelhouse was known as a dangerous spot.
* * *
As often as Jesse, Graeme, Erin, Ben et al decide to include a new definition in their impressive tomes the words and meanings pop up and shift too quickly. They're playing catch-up because it's impossible not to. The best dictionary editors can't predict which word will come into the language. And new definitions are tried and tested by the churning cultures of the roiling masses. Good luck with that forecast.
The best dictionaries are not too slow to reflect language change. They're just careful. And every metaphorical use isn't worth mentioning. No matter how beautiful or effective or striking. Should a dictionary tell us that a poem out there defines Petals (on a wet, black bough) as human faces on a Paris Subway? It's not a dictionary's job to tell us everything that has been done with a word. So this is a good reminder that a dictionary is a still shot of a moving object. And not every twitch and flutter needs to be documented.
This is less and less troubling these days because of our ongoing self-documenting language technology. Google™ is an impressive lexical tool. Type in your term and you can find millions of of instances of its use which give a good image of how a word is understood. And sometimes Google™ anticipates well that you're looking for just that information. The first hit is often a definition.
And Sites like Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers and The Phrase Finder are more likely to report recent development. The compromise of such responsiveness is well discussed.
The greatest strength of a carefully compiled dictionary is the depth that a work like the OED obviously values. Few of the contributors to UrbanWiktionAnswers will stick with a word long enough for a full investigation. Even when the work is carefully done and attested these lexicographical dilettantes tend to move on to the next word before a full history has been uncovered. Those who snort around a word like a truffle pig are precious. And they tend to devote their work to the service of those dictionaries that value accuracy and depth more than quickness and breadth.
But this wheelhouse phrase isn't too obscure is it? It's not hard to find the meaning and especially in baseball jargon it must be pretty well known. How does this it fare on number of Google™ hits?
in my wheelhouse - 6,640
in his wheelhouse - 5,020
in your wheelhouse - 2,500
in their wheelhouse - 1,280
in our wheelhouse - 1,200
in her wheelhouse - 1,020
Searching for 'in the wheelhouse' brings up mostly boat references. Going with the pronouns weeds out a lot of those. Tho using "her" pulls up a lot that refer to the earlier meanings - "she" being the boat/ship.
It's not huge. But open it up with a wildcard and narrow it back down by adding "right in" and we find that "right in * wheelhouse" gives us 20,300 hits. A few of the hits on the first page are references to the phrase. The rest look like a relevant use. Three of them refer to baseball. The following pages show a good mix of relevant uses regarding sports, music, dancing, automotive engineering, comedy, politics...
All evidence that the phrase has a firm footing.
And there's this post by someone else who wonders about the phrase. A commenter (going by emetic sage)suggests that the phrase works because of the central location of the wheelhouse on a boat. But wheelhouses aren't characterized by their central location nor are they a paragon of a centrality. I still like my paddle box idea.